AMANDLA! WOMEN TO WATCH EDITION
Naa Adoley Azu
Director for Alternative Dispute Resolution at the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
Why did you decide to study law?
The phenomenon of individuals following in their parents’ professional footsteps, also referred to as “occupational inheritance” or “occupational following,” has long been a focus of study amongst economists and sociologists. Research from the University of Chicago suggests that we are 27 times more likely to become lawyers if that was what one of our parents did for work. I chose to follow in my mother’s footsteps, especially inspired by her passion for social justice and her commitment to serving the under-privileged and enabling change, all in the pursuit of fairness. Through the lens of a child, I grew up regarding the law as a powerful resource to effectively challenge injustice, promote fairness, remove barriers, and enable individuals to advance their capabilities.
What is your proudest professional moment thus far?
I was elevated to the High Court of Ghana, after a year’s service on the Circuit Bench. I effectively leveraged digital/computerized recording of court proceedings, eliminating the manual handwritten process, and improved the efficiency and accuracy of court records. As the Program Director for Alternative Dispute Resolution and Compliance with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, I conducted hundreds of mediations and conciliations of Civil Right charges in the Employment, Housing, and Public Accommodations sectors, exceeding all prior settlement statistics, resulting in settlements and best practice implementation not only for the benefit of the complainants but the corporations. Given my unwavering belief that technology can be a very effective tool in dispute resolution, I also led the ICRC’s Case Management System development project to transition the agency from being paper based to electronic, not forgetting serving on the UNDP/WAHO/UNAIDS Consultative Forum for the Ecowas Sub-region and being an International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) delegate and panelist at the 2018 UN-CSW Conference in New York. Being a space enthusiast, I must also mention being part of the management team of the African Air and Space Law Association (AADAS), set up in 2019 to promote Air & Space Law in Africa and the association's maiden webinar, where industry experts discussed the regulation of space activities in Africa.
Looking back, what is one decision/action you would have done differently?
I would definitely spend more time in the teaching environment, learning how to use new analytical tools, exploring innovative ways to address unanswered questions and difficult problems, generating new perspectives in a stimulating and collegial environment, filled with enthusiastic minds. Investing more of my time in advocacy and public outreach initiatives, to address discriminatory practices and protect the under-privileged.
Share some major professional challenges you have faced, or continue to face as a woman in law.
In a profession where precedents guide decision making and Stare decisis promotes stability and continuity, the pursuit of innovation which is akin to departure from convention can be quite challenging, much like trying to drive forward whilst looking through the rearview mirror. Throughout my career I have focused on delivering the highest quality work whilst being an advocate for the adoption of technology and the incorporation of organizational techniques to modernize processes and offerings, some as simple as eliminating the hand written process in order to improve accuracy and save time. Given the profession’s reverence for tradition, attempts to encourage departure from convention often come at a price. Choosing to challenge the status quo, even if in pursuit of alternative approaches that could improve efficiency and stakeholder satisfaction, has on occasion rubbed the legal hierarchy the wrong way. When I visited the Center for Court Innovation in 2018 and observed the Criminal Court that sits from 5pm till 1am in New York, I saw in reality what I had only imagined, and thought of how beneficial it would be to court users to stagger our courts’ sitting times and introduce additional schedules to better serve the public efficiently.
Creativity, originality, uniqueness, and singularity are not always applauded within the legal fraternity. Years before the pandemic forced the world into quarantine and tele-work, I suggested remote work and virtual court hearings unsuccessfully; feasibility, and how to measure productivity were questioned given the novelty of the proposal. Even though legal professionals believe in continuous learning and improvement, I have come to realize that incremental change is preferred to drastic disruption. Over the years I have learnt how to highlight practicality, articulate functional advantages, emphasize accessibility and highlight cost savings and time efficiency, firmly believing in Robert Browning’s quote that “All we have willed or hoped or dreamed of good shall exist; Not its semblance, but itself”.
What are some practical strategies for survival in the legal profession?
Resilience, empathy and integrity are high on my list. It is important to stay true to your authentic self and to measure your success by your own standards and not the standards or expectations of others. Treat all persons with dignity and respect, and always honor confidentiality. Dare to be an individual and be different, explore your interests and capabilities, and push the envelope; stereotypes rarely inspire change and progress.
Invest in learning and self–development and make time to celebrate even the smallest of wins and achievements. Dedicate time to building and maintaining both personal relationships and professional networks. It is important to find a good mentor from whom you can gain knowledge, pick up skills and receive feedback. A credible professional sponsor who can actively advocate for you could positively impact your career. Give more than you receive! When you have built the expertise and capability, and agree to be a mentor, be willing to provide guidance and support to help your mentee access opportunities to thrive in their career. Above all, remember to put people instead of things first.